APPG — 11th September 2023

The safety of school buildings is of great importance to parents. We take for granted that buildings are structurally sound and trust that they have been built to high standards. However, alarm bells were sounded when it came to wider attention that some buildings in England’s school estate were constructed using Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC).

RAAC is a lightweight form of concrete that is strengthened by reinforcement materials such as steel bars or meshes. Until the mid-1990s, it was used in the construction of many public buildings. The problem with it is that it has a relatively short lifespan of around thirty years, which is why its usage fell from favour. If there are poor building standards leading to rainwater or burst pipes spreading damp into the RAAC, sudden structural failure can occur. Failing RAAC-constructed roofs tend to collapse with little or no warning, such as telltale signs of a problem like large cracks appearing, which is one reason why its presence in school buildings is such a concern.

The Department for Education (DfE) contacted schools in 2022 to ask them if they had any confirmed or suspected cases of RAAC. Since then, RAAC has been found in hundreds of school buildings. The DfE is providing funding for emergency building works in schools where the presence of RAAC has been confirmed. This has led to some buildings being temporarily closed, which in turn leads to disruption to children’s learning. 

The chair of the APPG for Parental Participation in Education, Gateshead MP Ian Mearns, was keen to bring the issue of RAAC and its impact on school building closures to the wider attention of his fellow MPs. Parentkind and the group’s secretariat aided in bringing together experts in the field to provide parliamentarians with insights about the safety of school buildings. The group gathered in Westminster on 11th September 2023, with Parentkind’s Chief Executive Jason Elsom and other members of staff present.

Guest speakers included

  • Professor Chris Goodier, Loughborough University
  • Sir Jon Coles, Chief Executive of United Learning
  • Emma Willson, Director, education value for money team at the National Audit Office

Professor Chris Goodier

The Loughborough University academic is an authority on buildings, concrete repair and maintenance. He gave an overview of the history of using Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) in public buildings in England. He framed this by emphasising his role as a parent and primary school governor to demonstrate a personal understanding of parental concerns about RAAC in schools. Through his presentation, members of the group were able to handle a sample of RAAC. It was used in construction in the UK until the 1980s when concerns arose about its structural integrity. The Building Research Establishment (BRE) recommended discontinuing its use due to potential issues. Consequently, the UK moved away from RAAC. Professor Goodier’s involvement in RAAC research began with research funding from the NHS, which has extensive RAAC usage in hospitals. The analysis aimed to understand RAAC’s properties and its suitability as a building material in various settings. He highlighted the importance of continuous monitoring of buildings that have RAAC, emphasising that while not all RAAC is problematic, periodic assessments are crucial as it has a finite lifespan especially when poorly maintained or exposed to rain and damp. Although only a small portion of RAAC is at risk of failure, locating it is essential. Once identified in school buildings, reinforcement with steel bars and proper maintenance can ensure its safety.

Sir Jon Coles

The MAT Chief Executive pointed out that the issue of RAAC has gained prominence thanks to extensive media coverage, though there have so far not been any injuries in schools as a result of collapsing buildings. He had undertaken efforts to assess RAAC in buildings across the academies his MAT is responsible for but hadn’t found any. Nevertheless, they continue to survey the buildings to be thorough. A comparison with the NHS highlighted that the education sector lacks a similar level of monitoring and scrutiny for its estates. He suggested reevaluating the current model of managing and monitoring the school estate, emphasising a potential role for local authorities and trusts because expecting central government to oversee the task was unachievable. He advocated for a long-term and strategic approach to maintaining the school infrastructure. It was his belief that the current crisis occurred because of lack of financial investment in the maintenance of the school estate over the last decade, arguing that adequate funding is essential for maintaining a high-quality learning environment.

Emma Willson

The Director of the education value for money team at the National Audit Office (NAO) discussed her organisation’s role in holding the government accountable for spending decisions, particularly in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. A relevant report on the condition of school buildings was published in June 2023. It found that approximately 24,000 school buildings in the school estate (38% of the total) are beyond their estimated design life, requiring more maintenance. She pointed out that the Department for Education (DfE) considers safety in school buildings a critical risk but lacks comprehensive information on safety issues. The further problem she raised is that the funding available for school buildings falls significantly short of what the DfE assesses as necessary to ensure safety and an overall good condition. Urgent repairs often take precedence over planned maintenance, potentially lacking long-term value for money.

Overall, the meeting heard that years of underinvestment have resulted in the declining overall condition of the school estate, with a significant number of students attending schools constructed using RAAC in need of some maintenance. The chair noted that three schools in a trust where he is a member of the board have temporarily closed due to the presence of RAAC. The disruption to children’s learning and to family life mean that the issue should be prioritised and dealt with urgently.